Franklin Edson Belden
1858 - 1945
F. E. Belden was the most prolific writer of hymn tunes, gospel songs, and related texts in the early years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was referred to as "the sweet singer of Israel." He was known for his ability to compose hymns spontaneously as sermons were being delivered and then perform them at the conclusion of the service.
Belden was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, the oldest of five children born to Stephen and Sarah Harmon Belden, older sister of Ellen Harmon White. He began writing music in his late teenage years following a move to California with his family. For health reasons he moved to Colorado, where he met and then married Harriet MacDearmon, also a talented musician, in 1881.
They returned to Battle Creek in the early 1880s, where he became involved in the Adventist publishing work. He and Edwin Barnes, a talented musician who had recently moved to Battle Creek from England, served as music editors of Hymns and Tunes, a collection of over 1100 hymns released by the Adventist church in 1886. Belden, who was in his late twenties and contributed over eighty texts and 87 tunes to the collection, also later collaborated with his cousin, J. Edson White, on several songbooks.
Belden's name is associated with Christ in Song, the most popular songbook ever published by the church. He had started working on the collection in 1884 as Hymns and Tunes was nearing completion. In 1900 he personally published the completed collection, which was then sold by the Review and Herald.
In 1905 a disagreement arose between Belden and the General Conference over the royalties from Hymns and Tunes. Although it was reported that Belden was greedy and wanted money, in reality he was upset over a breaking of the original agreement voted by the GC in 1885 that all royalties from sales of Hymns and Tunes would support the church's mission work. Belden had said that he would contribute his music only under that condition.
When the church's publishing entities were consolidated as the Review and Herald Publishing Association and the copyright was assigned to it, Belden did not want his share to go to the publishing house and wrote an extended letter in 1905 protesting that assignment. The matter remained unresolved, and Belden, disillusioned, separated himself from Adventism, but not the Christian faith, at that time.1
In 1907 Belden, now widely known for his hymn writing and leadership in the church, and a number of other prominent Adventists were expelled from the church, branded as apostates and heretics by a committee. This decision and others made at a time when the church was in turmoil over theological issues, was reported in the July 12, 1907, Cass City [Michigan] Chronicle. The announcement was met with dismay by those who were expelled and by other members of the church.2
The following year, Belden published a revised and expanded edition of CS, which he hoped would serve as a church hymnal and Sabbath School songbook and would appeal to the young. This version would become the favorite song collection with members of the church for decades.
Near the end of his work on CS, Belden had begun writing songs for the noted evangelist Billy Sunday, which were included in Songs for the King's Business. Even though it was published in 1909 by Sunday School Supply House in Chicago, it was advertised in the Review and Herald and available through the RHPA.
Belden's uncanny ability to rapidly pen both music and poetry enabled him to write a song to fit a sermon while it was still being delivered. At the end of the service he and his wife would perform the newly created song. They would then give a copy of the manuscript to the preacher as a souvenir.
Following his death in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1945, at age 87, his papers and manuscripts were purchased for $1000 by the church and given to the SDA Theological Seminary in Takoma Park, Maryland. They are now available at the Andrews University Library in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
The 1941 Church Hymnal included 22 of Belden's songs and hymns. The 1985 Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal includes twelve complete hymns and four tunes by him, more than provided by any other Adventist contributor.
1 As late as 1939 and 1940, the matter of Belden's royalties was still in question. In response to assertions he was saying and writing, the SDA General Conference Committee in a meeting on January 1940 approved a draft of a letter to be written by an investigative committee that would inform Belden that "according to our findings, all arrangements entered into for the use of the songs were mutually satisfactory to him and the denomination at the time the negotiations were carried out."
2 Roger W. Coon in an article in the Review and Herald titled "The Ultimate Question" (10 March 1988, 9, 10) presents Belden as an example of a leader in the church "who went in the wrong direction." Coon states that Belden "separated from the church around 1907 because a number of grievances were not resolved to his satisfaction." Coon describes a meeting with Belden in the year of his death (1945) by ministers Kenneth H. Wood and Carlyle B. Haynes as unproductive, and he refers to Belden as a "recalcitrant curmudgeon" who refused to let Wood and Haynes have prayer with him when they left.
Sources: Wayne H. Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, 1988, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 24, 28-33, 627-28. The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, Volume 10, (Review and Herald Publishing Association 1966) 117; 10 March 1968, 9, 10; SDA General Conference Committee, 428th Meeting, 22 January 1940, 1361; 581st Meeting, 9 August 1945, 2003 (Payment for Belden materials); Other Online Sources.